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A rainstorm passes over the Anthracite Mountains near Gunnison. The Gunnison Valley through which the Gunnison River flows, seen here in the distance, is bordered by the Anthracite Range and West Elk Mountains to the north and the Sawatch's Collegiate Range to the east. (Dean Krakel, Special for The Colorado Sun)

The West Elk coal mine must keep flaring dangerous methane and seek state air pollution permits instead of leaking the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, in a consent decree hailed by environmental groups across Colorado. 

Though burning the methane on-site near Somerset creates CO2, it causes far less damage to the atmosphere than allowing raw methane to rise and produce more than 80 times the greenhouse effect of carbon, those groups say. The West Elk mine, operated by Arch Resources subsidiary Mountain Coal, is one of the largest industrial sources of CO2 damage in Colorado. 

“Flaring is great,” said Chris Caskey, a former board member of the Western Slope Conservation Center and manager of flaring operations for another closed mine in the North Fork area. “Methane is so much more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. And there’s additional other hydrocarbons in there that are nasty and getting those burned is useful as well.”

 “It should reduce emissions by 99%, if not more,” said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians. 

Nichols’ group was part of the coalition that filed a 2020 lawsuit against Mountain Coal demanding it seek Clean Air Act permits for activities and leaks at the mine. The consent decree signed by a federal judge requires West Elk to continue flaring for at least two years while it seeks final air pollution permits for all its activities. 

 “We need to get them to shut down entirely, and that’s what we’re aiming for,” Nichols said. “It’s really important to get these concessions in the near term, to have a practical impact.”

Others in the coalition were the Sierra Club, High Country Conservation Advocates and the Center for Biological Diversity.

Mountain Coal and Arch Resources did not return emails and phone messages seeking comment. 

West Elk “emitted more than 312,000 tons of carbon dioxide in 2020,” equal to annual emissions from 68,000 cars, the Center for Biological Diversity said. Methane also adds to the creation of local volatile organic compounds, which create ground level ozone irritating residents in Paonia and elsewhere in the North Fork Valley. 

Digging out underground coal disturbs methane and other gases embedded in layers of carbon resources. 

“The joke is that coal mining is the most effective method of fracking,” Caskey said. 

Methane releases continue for decades after mines are closed up. West Elk mines currently, and must vent gas to protect miners. But it also has extensive older shafts that are vented through wells drilled from the surface. 

Caskey manages a methane capture-and-burn operation at another nearby mine, Elk Creek, that generates electricity for Holy Cross Energy and Aspen Skiing Co. West Elk’s methane venting is too dispersed, and its location too isolated from possible generating facilities, to be burned in any way other than flaring, Caskey said. 

“We’d love to see it used,” Caskey said, “but flaring it is a great outcome.”

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...